Scrutiny or performance review?

Over the last few months I’ve had a number of discussions with different politicians about the changing role of councillors and the role of scrutiny. There seemed to be general agreement that whilst a new system of governance has been introduced in places like Bristol, little thought has been given to the impact this might have on elected politicians. With the introduction of the mayoral system, and arguably the election of an independent mayor, the role of the 70 councillors elected to Bristol Council has now fundamentally changed. It also appears that this change has taken place within a vacuum of knowledge about impact and the subsequent change needed to the systems and processes of the council. It is an issue that the current Mayor has tried to address by changing the way Full Council meetings are run and how the Cabinet/Scrutiny split works. But it would be fair to say that many councillors are disillusioned with the way the council works and the way their role has changed.

Indeed, if you look at the research findings of the Bristol Civic Leadership Project, then it is clear that councillors are far more sceptical about the impact the mayoral system has had in Bristol than other groups tend to be. Perhaps not surprising as the role and responsibilities of the Mayor are drawn directly from those previously held by councillors. However, part of the problem could be down to the lack of time, resource and consideration given to getting the structures and processes right before the Mayoral model was introduced. That means councillors and officers have been left feeling their way through a new system, defining boundaries and adopting new approaches whilst the Mayor gets on with things.

One of the issues raised during my discussions was how ineffective scrutiny is in actually providing robust and effective challenge to the Mayor’s decisions or policies. In my view this has been a problem in Bristol since the change to Cabinet/Scrutiny took place in 2000/01. The role of scrutiny has stumbled along, doing some good work, but against a tide of resentment and powerlessness. Whilst I’m certainly no expert on scrutiny systems or how things are now working in Bristol, I am a firm believer in drawing on experience to solve existing problems. With this in mind, back in the old days of committees we had a wonderful sub committee in Bristol called Performance Review. This committee was certainly not for the faint hearted and was consistently capable of generating immense amounts of paperwork. I spent a couple of years on the sub committee and what it did incredibly effectively was scrutinise performance on a department by department basis and against corporate cross cutting issues. In those days it was largely scrutiny of officers but there’s no reason why this type of approach couldn’t be used to scrutinise the performance of the Mayor and the council as a whole.

It worked on the basis of a set of annual performance targets, some statutory, some prioritised and selected by politicians and officers in each department. These were then monitored monthly by officers and quarterly by councillors on the sub committee. It was a terrifying experience for lead officers as they were basically grilled on every aspect of their plan both when it was initially agreed and as we went through the year. The initial discussions were a good check on the realism of targets, whether or not they were too soft, whether they covered the right things and whether all key political priorities were adequately covered. The quarterly meetings then focused in on where targets were not being met and why. Each member of the committee, across all parties, took the lead on a particular department or cross cutting issue, and led the grilling. It was incredibly effective in identifying progress, or lack of, and in keeping track of a lots of policies and targets.

I’m not sure if something like this still exists, but perhaps is should? I know it’s certainly not the answer to the problems of scrutiny but it might provide part of the solution to some of the currently perceived problems. What do you think?

The difference a Mayor makes?

DSCN0159With all this talk about devolution and the centralised power of Westminster, it got me thinking about cities and city regions, and about the role of directly elected Mayors and the difference they could make to this agenda. If there is any chance of greater devolution to the local level in England, at the city or city region level, then is Mayoral governance an effective form of leadership to take on this new, more powerful role? As it happens I spent a couple of days last week at the Policy & Politics Annual Conference* where I attended three separate sessions on “what difference do directly elected mayors make?” as well as several plenary sessions about leadership and collaborative governance – critical ingredients for successful mayoral leadership perhaps? I wrote up each of the plenaries for the Policy & Politics blog – take a look if you want to know what all these academics were talking about!

I also recently attended a debate organised by Bristol Festival of Ideas about ‘leading the green city’ which I wrote up for Bristol 24-7. The critical point from that discussion about leadership suggests that with the potential for more power to be vested in one individual at the centre of City Hall (the Mayor), there comes a responsibility to share that power with local communities.  A potentially important lesson for all areas embarking on new forms of city governance?

The academic debate about directly elected mayors is interesting, it starts from the premise that this new model of urban governance provides more visible leadership, can better handle the complexity of local government, partnership working, and collaboration. It also accepts that there is little evidence to prove that this is the case from either the UK experience or from abroad. So does having a directly elected mayor really make a difference and is it a positive difference? I don’t intend to recount all of the discussion and presentations from the two day conference, but I just thought I’d pick out a few issues that struck me as important and where there is still so much to learn about this new form of local governance and the impact it has on decision making, collaboration and leadership. This becomes even more important if there are moves for greater devolution of power to the local level, we need to be confident that the model works and can handle this extra responsibility in the right way.

Whilst there seems to be little doubt that having an elected mayor provides for a more visible leadership role and there is better clarity over who is actually making the key decisions, there are equally some key questions raised by this new model in terms of the operation of the local council, local politicians and local communities. One of the issues raised during the conference discussion was about the role of scrutiny and whether or not this is being carried out effectively where there are elected mayors. It struck me that this is part of a wider debate that goes back to the Local Government Act 2000 where proposals to move from the old committee system to new models of local government were first introduced. The model most popularly adopted was that of cabinet and scrutiny, where a cabinet was formed (normally from the majority party) to take decisions and the rest of the councillors were organised around a series of scrutiny commissions to hold cabinet members to account.

What this new system did was remove policy development from the role of ordinary councillors, it created a 2-tier/class system of councillors, and left many wondering what their role was to be. Where in the past backbenchers might well have led on topics of interest to them and have played a key role to play at committee meetings, now they were told to focus on representing their constituents and providing some scrutiny to those now responsible for taking decisions. I was a councillor at the time of this change and it was a challenging and difficult time for many of us. I didn’t seek to become a cabinet member because I had a full-time job and didn’t think I could do both justice. So I went from committee chair to scrutiny member – quite a tricky transition for me and one I didn’t particularly enjoy, and I certainly wasn’t alone in that. My reason for going over old ground and history is that I don’t think the problems associated with lack of scrutiny of Mayoral decisions is anything new, it’s not just down to the mayoral system. The problem of scrutiny has been there ever since it was first introduced, when no one quite knew how to deal with it and where councillors and officers alike struggled with the concept and how to make it work – I wrote about this a while back in a blog suggesting we should bring back the committee system because actually it worked quite well! I think the same problems persist now, scrutiny in Bristol is not well developed, it never has been. I don’t know if it works better elsewhere, but there seems a real gap between the original intentions of this change of approach to governance and the reality of how it works on the ground.

What we have instead in places like Bristol, even before we had a Mayor, is a group of councillors who wonder quite what their role is beyond local representation. It seems to increase the oppositional nature of local politics and bring out the worst in many. The new model of directly elected mayor certainly exacerbates this process, particularly where the mayor is an independent with no reference back to a specific party group. The decision making power is vested in one person, and in Bristol that means the role of the majority of the other 70 councillors has changed even more, to one of local representation and trying to hold the mayor to account. But what does scrutiny actually mean and how does it work, can it be effective when the Mayor can choose to ignore it, and are councillors well equipped to deal with it – I have my doubts, same as I did back on 2000 when the initial changes were made. So there’s certainly an interesting academic debate to be had about the changing role of local councillors and how new models of local governance can work most effectively for everyone involved – the mayor, the councillors, the officers, the community. But nothing I’ve come across so far really answers those questions, that’s not to say the research doesn’t exist, just that I haven’t found it yet!

Like many of my blogs this started as a discussion about one thing and ended up as another – my approach to discipline in writing seems to be lacking. I started thinking about the difference mayors make and ended up talking about the need to think carefully about the role of councillors and scrutiny. It’s all part of the same discussion and there’s so much more to say, but I’ll leave that for another time.

*Note – if you want to know more about the discussion at the Policy & Politics Conference, Prof Alex Marsh & Dr David Sweeting talk about the contributions on directly elected mayors in this podcast – Talking Mayors

Initial impressions of an election night to forget! 

My first impression has nothing to do with the results themselves and more to do with just how long we all had to wait to find out what those results were in Bristol – seriously, how can it take until 3.30am to verify votes when some other councils had declared all results, packed up and gone home by then? What is the sense in doing the count in the evening if it is going to take that long? Why not go back to Friday counts, when candidates, agents, media etc have had a chance to sleep? The whole process seemed to be just ever so slightly shambolic……. again. This needs sorting out before the general election next year and goodness knows how they’ll cope in 2016 when we have all council seats and the Mayor up for election at the same time!

I’d like to say that it was an exciting night of local election results, but actually it wasn’t. Sure there were a few surprises, but overall it was rather dull and mostly predictable and I can’t quite believe that once more I found myself awake and listening to it all for most of the night. Clearly after 8 years of being a local councillor, and many more of campaigning, you can never quite shake off an interest in local politics. I’ll no doubt be awake listening on Sunday night as the Euro results come through as well. It seems most pundits were predicting the Liberal Democrats would lose seats and Labour would gain them, with some quieter mumblings about the Greens maybe picking up one or two and let’s not forget UKIP, they just might pinch a couple. So perhaps the biggest surprise was that the Conservative share of the vote held up reasonably well (only down 4%) and the Labour share didn’t increase as much as people thought (up 2%). Not surprising, however, was the collapse of the Liberal Democrat vote (down 17%) or the rise of UKIP (up 11%) and the Greens (up 8%) – entirely predictable. For more statistics on what happened, who got elected where, and what the turnout was see the Council website.

The overall impression from these results is a bit depressing really. Of course it’s difficult to predict patterns for future local or even a general election, as locals combined with Euro elections tend to bring out the ‘anti’ vote, so the trends may be more pronounced than they might be next year. They do on the surface at least seem to show that Labour is just not appealing to traditional Labour voters on the outer estates of Bristol, or they just didn’t get their vote out, whereas UKIP are appealing to people across the city particularly in the more traditional Labour heartlands and they seemed to be able to mobilise their vote – they came second in Whitchurch Park, Kingsweston, Avonmouth, Southmead, Brislington East & West – and of course they won their first Bristol Council seat in Hengrove. A further trend would seem to be that disillusioned Liberal Democrat voters are turning to the Green Party rather than Labour, with an increase in the Green vote and two new seats secured in Bristol West – this may also have been an option taken by some Labour voters across the city.

I listened to a lot of the coverage throughout the night on Radio 5 and Radio Bristol and what struck me most was the gradual dawning realisation that we might just have to take UKIP seriously as a party that appeals to the British public – there’s something about Farage and the messages he spins that appeals to people. Yes he might be playing on people’s fears, but it’s also true that to many he comes across as a normal bloke down the pub talking about all the stuff that people are concerned about. Yet somehow this isn’t true of Labour or the Lib Dems – they seem to have lost their way and been out manoeuvred by Farage and UKIP. To my mind Labour are too focused on trying to match the Tories on their policies and have lost sight of what a Labour Party should be about and the Lib Dems, I’m afraid, have just lost their way in a Coalition government dominated by Tory policy. Maybe eventually we’ll get used to the idea of Coalition rather than majority rule, and realise that compromise is essential in coalition politics until then the Liberal Democrats are in trouble, as is any other Party that enters into a Westminster Coalition as a minority. It’s just not something we are used to in this country, but I have a feeling we might well be getting a lot more practice at it. Depressing really! Also depressing is what this means for the Euro elections – I think the predicted upsurge of UKIP is obvious and maybe the only positive will be a few more Green MEPs?

A couple of mentions in relation to individuals in Bristol – I was surprised that the Liberal Democrats lost Brislington West but hung on to Whitchurch Park, keeping their Leader Tim Kent but losing a longstanding councillor in Peter Main, who did such a superb job as Lord Mayor. I was pleased to see the Greens do well, picking up a couple of extra seats and holding onto another, this hopefully bodes well for the European Election results, where the Greens may well just pick up that 6th seat in the SW. And finally, to Sam Mongon who won Windmill Hill from the Lib Dems, turning over a massive majority to win by 7 votes, impressive result.

However, the question I am left with is, does it really matter, other than to the individuals elected or not elected, what difference will this actually make now Bristol has an independent elected mayor, who has responsibility for taking all the decisions anyway? It certainly puts a different perspective on election day for me, as an outsider looking in, the excitement has gone and the meaning attached to results reduced. Perhaps one of the key question now is whether or not the political parties should participate in George’s cabinet and to what end? Maybe for another year it is worth it, to try and at least push party agendas, but in the run up to the 2016 full council and Mayoral elections, how does that work and what would be the benefit of being too closely associated with the decisions being taken by the Mayor? There’s also a big decision about scrutiny of the Mayor and how ineffective this seems to be at the moment – this is perhaps something that Labour and others need to get to grips with and provide more effective and consistent challenge to decision processes? Whilst I’ll watch with interest over the next week or so to see who helps George to form a cabinet and what positions different individuals take up, the gloss and excitement of local elections in Bristol has all but disappeared – until 2016 that is, when the people of the city get a chance to vote for who will be the next Mayor!

The changing role of local councillors – what next?

The debate about local democracy and local governance has led us in some quite interesting directions in recent years and has generated significant change in local council political structures – or has it? On the surface, with the initial change from the committee system of local government to cabinet and scrutiny and now the introduction of directly elected Mayors in some areas, things have definitely changed. We have a very different model of local governance now than we did in the 1990s and there’s a very different way of doing things, but how have local councillors adapted to this? In a blog post in November I talked with nostalgia about the old committee system and to a point lamented its loss. I also raised the point about the changing role of councillors over the last 15 years or so which I will elaborate on further here.

There is an excellent opportunity available to us a the moment, through the Local Government Boundary Commission Review, but sadly in Bristol (and probably elsewhere) there is little or no initial public discussion on this issue. It is held for now within the political confines of the party groups and officers of the council to decide what they want to do – which in this instance may well mean very little as it could be a bit like turkeys voting for christmas. I’ll explain that one in a minute.

But first, what is the Review about? Bristol has been included in the programme of review for 2014/15 which will seek to look at the size and boundaries of electoral wards and make changes in time for the whole council elections to be held in 2016. This enables the council to consider the number of councillors it needs and the number and size of wards across the city. Whist this doesn’t address the issue of how things work it does enable some structural change to reflect new governance arrangements.

Currently there is an obvious problem of disparity in terms of the size of wards in Bristol, with some ward councillors representing 3-4,000 more people than others. The biggest disparities are seen in central areas such as Cabot, Ashley and Lawrence Hill with 20-30% more electors than the average, and in areas such as Kingsweston, Henleaze, Henbury and Whitchurch Park with 10-15% fewer electors than the average. So the first job of any response to the Boundary Review is to try and redraw ward boundaries to even this out by creating similar sized wards in terms of electorate. That’s probably the easy bit actually and one that many councillors will agree on, but it’s only part of the issue. The questions then begin to arise about whether or not we need 35 wards with 2 councillors in each ward. Given the changes mentioned above, do we really need 70 backbench councillors to keep an eye on George and to represent local communities?

So the bigger question is given the changing role of councillors, from strategic, policy development, representation, decision making to more of a local representation and scrutiny role, do we really need to hang on to 2 per ward and 70 in total? Perhaps equally important is the question about whether or not this issue is even being considered seriously. Now you can see why that might be difficult, because the very people who need to consider the idea of reducing the number of councillors are the very people who would be out of a job if they decided that was the right thing to do. Hence my turkey’s voting for christmas comment above. However, to be fair, there has actually been some debate on this with some suggestion that perhaps you could lose a few councillors but I’ve yet to see any real discussion or evidence or a serious review and debate.

If you were to take a logical approach to this and accept two main premises which I believe to be true – first that the role of councillors has now changed quite significantly and second that local people want clarity about who represents them, after all that’s one of the reasons we have an elected mayor isn’t it, people wanted a clear leadership figure that was identifiable? Shouldn’t we translate that same principle to the very local level? How does having 2 councillors per ward, sometimes from different parties, help local people? Doesn’t it just add to the confusion? So how do we address this?

Well, my proposal for debate is to go for single member wards and establish “mini-mayors” for each ward that local people can relate to and identify as their representative and their first point of contact with the council. One councillor representing a smaller area, taking on that local leadership mantle seems far more sensible to me under this new system than sticking with a structure that was developed decades ago under a very different system. The debate about quite how many wards to go for will clearly create some tension and generate some debate, but 50 is a nice round number so why not start with that as an idea! We could have 50 local ward mayors in Bristol, with a clear remit as the representative for that area, involved in local partnerships and groups, on top of local issues and the key point of contact with the City Mayor. These changes can be achieved through the Boundary Review and I hope the Elections and Democracy Commission of the council will have some interesting discussion on these issues in 2014 – their last meeting in October sets out the process in detail – worth a look if you want to know more.

But seriously this is only a small part of the debate, it’s easy to focus on this because we can tinker with maps and boundaries, argue over the number of wards, councillors and where the lines can be drawn. However, whilst this is important it ignores the bigger issue of how the role of scrutiny can be developed to be a useful function which challenges the mayor and his decisions but also has a proactive role to play in the development of policy and direction. This was one of the critical challenges when I was a councillor at the time when the change to cabinet/scrutiny was first introduced. Politicians and officers alike struggled with what it meant, neither were particularly well equipped to respond to the change in a positive way, and in the couple of years I was involved it was a real struggle to define the boundaries of scrutiny in a way that worked. Part of the problem was it pitched scrutiny chairs in a role that could potentially be in conflict and disagreement with the cabinet member, and in my day we were in the same party, so you were pitched against your own colleagues in dialogue, challenge and debate. This led to real tensions which played out in different ways depending on the personalities involved. I also found that officers didn’t quite know how to deal with this new system either – how could they work with a cabinet member and a scrutiny commission chair? Their response was to divide the officer core, the cabinet member got to work with the Director, whilst as a scrutiny chair I was left to work with the next level down! Equally, some officers did a pretty good job of playing us off against one another, so when they didn’t get the answer they wanted from the Cabinet Member, they came to me as scrutiny chair to see if I would pick the issue up. Lots of room for conflict and confusion there then.

Now I’m not sure how much things have changed, as I was only involved for the first couple of years of the new system and haven’t had much if any involvement since. But from what I can see sitting on the outside, scrutiny is still less well developed than it should be and cabinet members/Mayors are still defensive about challenge. My belief – there is a real opportunity there to develop a system that engages all councillors in critical challenge, policy development and scrutiny in a way that is collaborative and effective but we need the right officers to support that and training and development of councillors to understand these new roles and ways of working.

As an aside, if you add into the equation the introduction of things like Local Enterprise Partnerships and their impact on the role and function of local councillors and local democracy then there are a whole host of other debates that need to be had to understand how the role of a local councilor has changed.

There’s so much more to say on this issue that I may have to blog again as I have merely touched the surface of what I wanted to say here!

Why we should bring back the Committee System!

With all this talk about George’s first year as Bristol Mayor and whether having a mayor has made a difference, it’s made me quite nostalgic and got me thinking about how good the old committee system actually was!

I’m not normally an advocate of looking back, as there is little we can change about past decisions or actions, but on this occasion it struck me that where we are now has been so governed by what people perceived as the problem in the past, that just maybe we can learn some valuable lessons by looking back.

The old committee system came in for significant criticism in an Audit Commission Report published in Sept 1990 – its title “we can’t go on meeting like this” gives you a clue of where its starting point was. Much of what the report said was interesting and useful and is a good reminder for current day discussions.

The report kicked off the debate about whether or not councillors could really deliver on all main aspects of their job well when they were expected to spend so much time on council committees dealing with operational and day to day issues. The committee system was seen as too clumsy and constrained by political voting systems, there was no real debate, councillors spent too long on unnecessary and irrelevant discussion, making few decisions and got too involved in the day to day running of the council – basically they spent too much time in meetings that didn’t really achieve anything.

In Bristol this debate took hold and the council was criticised for being too bureaucratic, too slow, lacking in vision or action, too much politics, no clarity over who took decisions etc. It seemed like the momentum was really building for local government change into a new system of governance that would enable better decision making, clearer definition of roles, less bureaucracy, more involvement, more scrutiny etc.

As the debate continued amongst local government analysts, academics, politicians, local and national government, more of these issues were discussed and more criticisms levelled at this old fashioned, out of date system. The outcome of all of this debate and criticism of the committee system, that had existed for some time in local authorities, was the Local Government Act 2000 which basically got rid of the old and brought in a new set of models for local government. Councils were asked to chose one of the following:

  • Leader and cabinet executive
  • Mayor and cabinet executive
  • Mayor and council manager executive
  • Alternative arrangement

Most councils chose the Leader and cabinet model, which is still the most common form of council structure today, despite a growing number now choosing to go back to a committee system. But did this new approach work?

I was a councillor at the time this new model was implemented and I was part of the group that took the decision to go for a Leader and Cabinet model in Bristol. To be honest, it didn’t on the surface feel like it would be that different to what was already operating in Bristol, we had our own informal cabinet already, made up of committee chairs and other key Labour members anyway. However, what this new approach did do was take away the backbenchers ability to engage in policy development and public debate. It left backbenchers and opposition members in a pure scrutiny role, working on new scrutiny commissions often with unclear aims, roles and purpose. It was all new, and it took quite a lot of time to work out quite what this new approach meant and how it could operate effectively.

It also left the majority of councillors feeling disenfranchised, disillusioned and un-needed. It put decision making power in the hands of a small group and made public involvement more difficult and reduced the role of most councillors to that of looking after their ward, an important role no doubt, but only part of what being a councillor is all about. Whilst the new model may have reduced the time councillors spent in meetings it certainly didn’t do anything to improve their engagement with decisions and priorities. I well remember at the time councillors of all parties bemoaning the lack of involvement, discussion and debate and how the old system had been better. And, in Bristol, with yet more change and an elected Mayor, these feelings must be further reinforced and compounded.

What the old committee system did encourage was discussion, about decisions, about policy and strategy and about operational issues. In Bristol most backbenchers on a committee would take the lead on a particular issue and more councillors of all parties were given an opportunity to be involved in different ways. The committees often had very open public debate about difficult issues, with input from all parties making a difference to the final decision – a good example of democracy at work. However, there were equally too many occasions where political voting was decided beforehand and no amount of debate at the committee would make a difference to the decision. This in my view was the main problem with the way the committee system worked in councils where one party was in overall control – they didn’t have to win the argument they just had to turn up and outnumber the others so they could win the vote!

So looking back and then forwards, what can we learn about what improvements we could make now. Well, with a directly elected independent Mayor in Bristol things are totally different – in George we have a council leader and someone who will use that leadership role to take decisions without consultation, who won’t pander to the other elected members on the council or their party politics, and who can do pretty much what he wants for the next couple of years before the voters of Bristol will be able to do anything about it. And that is exactly what people voted for when they voted to have a mayor and then voted for an independent – so be careful what you wish for Bristol.

Yet, what we could have, if we didn’t have a Mayor, is a return to discussion and debate, all councillors properly involved and engaged in developing and delivering on the priorities of the council as well as representing the interests of their voters in a way that may actually support change. However, this could only happen if the political parties were willing to give up some of the control over members on committees and allow them the freedom to vote without constraint.

By getting rid of committees we have left a lot of councillors wondering what their role is and by bringing in an elected mayor we have once more reduced the role of most councillors to that of local representative with little power or ability to effect change, define priorities or develop policy.

That isn’t why I became a Bristol councillor back in 1994 and if I were one now I would quit! I would want to be involved in developing a vision and strategy for Bristol, priorities for the way forward and addressing the inequalities of our city and that’s why we need further change that reflects what our cities need and borrows the best bits from different systems. Rather than a constant leap into what works in America must work here, or throwing out everything because it doesn’t work, without actually thinking about the bits that do.

Yes we need change, but let’s develop local solutions that work locally not generic systems borrowed from elsewhere, that if you look hard enough, don’t even work there!

I would love to know how current councillors in Bristol feel about all this and whether or not they think their role has declined and reduced?

South Bristol Link – Last Act or Final Curtain?

And so, momentum is once more building on the South Bristol Link. And the same old arguments are coming out from the same old sources, when to most of us it is an old solution to the wrong problem.

It is very clear that this a solution borne more from the existence and availability of a government funding stream than any real consideration of what South Bristol really needs or indeed wants. Politicians are warned constantly that they need to support this, and the other BRT schemes, otherwise we’ll lose the funding – so we end up with imperfect schemes and so called ‘solutions’  that don’t even begin to address the real problems, all because we are too scared to admit we got it wrong and because people don’t want to be accused of losing us government money.

I despair, I really do – how can our politicians, councils, LEP and businesses be that short sighted. Do they really believe that building a road with no beginning and end will sort out the problems we face in some areas of South Bristol, a road that essentially goes nowhere. At best it will help a small proportion of residents in South Bristol to move around the area better (by car) and at worst it will destroy communities and cut neighbourhoods off from one another. Remember, we are not talking about a residential road here, we are talking about 4 lanes of motorised traffic, 2 bus lanes and 2 car/lorry/van lanes being ploughed through what was once a residential street – see diagram below borrowed from the TravelWest website and compare it with the one below that, King George’s Road as it is now (from the Evening Post). How can anyone see that as an improvement and a benefit to local residents?


This scheme has been voted out on many occasions in the past, indeed I remember voting against it at least twice when I was a councillor, because the harm it will do to South Bristol and its communities is far greater than any perceived benefit.

The road will bring thousands of jobs, it’ll help open up South Bristol and better connect people to where they work, least that’s what its supporters say. But quite how does a road do that?

Thousands of new jobs will, we are told, be created by unlocking South Bristol. So a road that goes from the Long Ashton Park & Ride to Hengrove Park, across greenbelt land and through residential roads and green space will somehow bring jobs, and thousands of them at that! Quite where or what these jobs will be is unclear. Do the plans for the road include plans for new development – NO. Do the plans for the road include new business or office parks – NO. So how will this bring thousands of jobs to South Bristol and where will they go?

It’ll open up South Bristol? Well it might provide a better ‘rat-run’ for commuters from the Chew Valley and from Keynsham/Bath area to race through South Bristol to get to where they work and yes, ok, it might just help some residents get to the city centre or North/West of Bristol. But the benefits to South Bristol residents and communities are at best marginal. What would help far more to address the problems of access to South Bristol would be a complete redesign and reconfiguration of the major bottleneck that is the Parson Street Interchange and Winterstoke Road traffic chaos. That’s the main access point to South Bristol and that’s where the problem is. Why not focus on that, or is it just too difficult?

There will of course be one area that benefits from the road, not the bit that goes through South Bristol, but the bit that provides a link between the A370 and the A38 and that is where most of the support for this whole road comes from – the residents of Barrow Gurney, who at long last will get their by-pass. Not something to be dismissed lightly, a solution to relieving the pressure on Barrow is certainly needed, but why make the residents of South Bristol suffer by building the rest of the road? I’d support a Barrow by-pass but not as part of the South Bristol Link.

North Somerset Planning Committee are considering this today (7th November) and Bristol Council will consider the planning application later this month. I for one hope they turn it down again. I hope this is the final curtain for this scheme, but sadly, I think the pressure not to lose funding will prevail and the wrong decision will be taken for all the wrong reasons with this being the final act that sees us lumbered with a road to nowhere!


Update – North Somerset Planning Committee approve the application by 10 votes to 5.

Next up Bristol S&E Area Planning Committee on Nov 27th.